Among the many tributes to Jon Stewart currently running all across the media landscape, my favorite is Bill Carter's piece for The Hollywood Reporter titled 'How Jon Stewart Changed Media (and Made Megyn Kelly Cry).' The piece looks back not only on Stewart's relentless, essential criticism of the press during his tenure at The Daily Show but also the reaction from some of those who regularly found themselves in his sites.
It's ironic that so many of the people Stewart called out are singing his praises as he steps down, but he'd probably agree that the best way for the media to acknowledge his impact on its culture would be to actually take his criticism to heart and do its job better.
The following is a slightly adjusted version of a piece that ran on my blog, Deus Ex Malcontent, in February of 2007, when I was still a senior producer for CNN. It details the time that my own work in cable news wound up the target of Jon Stewart's ridicule and my reaction, both immediate and extended, to it.
My first reaction was to laugh out loud. It seemed the most honest and appropriate response, given that it's what I would've done had I been sitting in my living room instead of my place of work. Had I been curled up on my couch in front of the television or maybe facing the screen of my laptop, like everyone else in America, I would've cracked up as Jon Stewart's face contorted into an expression that conveyed confusion, disappointment and derision in equal parts. I would've joined in the roaring laughter of the audience as Stewart and The Daily Show's staff of writers once again aimed their acerbic wit in the direction of the television news media -- in particular, an on-air moment so unintentionally comical that it just cried out to be made fun of. I would've no doubt taken secret satisfaction in a fake news show again holding a legitimate news show up to public ridicule, and in doing so proving itself to be the more respectable of the two. I would've loved every second of it. So did it really make any difference that the person they were making fun of was me?
I've always heard it said that you're not anybody in this business until you've been fired at least once. Granted, if this axiom holds true then I'm the most powerful man in television news, but these days I'm pretty sure one's relevance -- journalistic, cultural or otherwise -- can actually be measured by whether or not he or she has been ripped apart on The Daily Show. Many in the media now consider it a badge of honor to find themselves in Jon Stewart's comedic crosshairs; all but the most humorless reactionaries (basically Bill O'Reilly) at the very least accept such a possibility as an occupational hazard. Still, when you actually see your work, your words -- to say nothing of your face -- up there on the chopping block, it's a little like being back in elementary school and finding yourself in the awkward position of having to either laugh along with everyone else at the fact that your pants just split up the back or risk looking incredibly stupid.
So I laughed. I sat at my desk and watched the clip of the preceding night's Daily Show, and giggled my ass off, even leaning back in my chair and raising both fists above my head in a little display of exaggerated triumph. I had hit the big time. For a brief moment, even though the cool kids were making fun of me, I felt like one of them. There was solidarity in the fact that we both found the same person ridiculous: me. And then of course, the initial commotion died down and I took some time to think about it. You might say I went through the Kubler-Ross stages of nervous self-consciousness. Something probably worth mentioning: I'm many awful things, but I don't believe a hypocrite to be one of them. I have thick skin and I'm almost impossible to offend. I hold no sacred cows that immediately come to mind and have always believed wholeheartedly that anything can be poked fun at. Anything. What's funny is funny, no matter how tasteless or presumably offensive it may be to the sensibilities of polite society or anyone else for that matter. As the t-shirt once proclaimed: Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.
It would be flat-out wrong to say that at any point since first hearing the words that I'd written and seeing the story that I'd produced turned into a punchline have I been pissed-off about it. I gave my superiors exactly what they asked for, knowing full well that it wouldn't be the finest hour for myself or the anchor charged with reading the story (the anchor whose actual face would eventually wind up on The Daily Show, while I alone would bear the burden of knowing my particular role in the whole shameful farce). That said, I accept that what I wrote -- the exact words that Jon Stewart thought hysterical enough to warrant time on his show -- were indeed so painfully awful that it hurt to write them. The entire segment was a stupid idea, a journalistic "reach" of caricaturish proportions. Put simply, the work I put my name on, whether I agreed with the assignment or not, deserved to be ripped to shreds.
The story, as much as it could even be called a story, was little more than another attempt to suckle at the rapidly decaying teats of Playboy Playmate turned grotesque public spectacle Anna Nicole Smith. Her death has opened the floodgates for every kind of cheeseball sidebar or barely-there tie-in, as evidenced by the fact that my show, American Morning, thought it would be a clever idea to publicly ponder whether the refrigerator Smith kept her drugs in says something larger about the state of all refrigerators in America. And so, as the lead-in to the segment, there was poor Miles O'Brien actually saying the following words: "There certainly has been plenty of talk in recent days about that final sad image of Anna Nicole Smith's refrigerator, mostly empty but filled with methadone, diet drinks and, you know, almost nothing else." That was the setup -- then came the segue that made me cringe so hard it was probably audible to those around me: "Did you know that your own refrigerator can reveal clues about you?" Toss to CNN correspondent Alina Cho, who was at that moment going through the fridge in the break room on our floor and probably trying her hardest not to point out what it revealed about us that some asshole copy editor had left badly wrapped fish and broccoli in there for the past two weeks. Again, the story deserved every bit of mockery Stewart could heap on it.
And that's the problem.
Journalists, like everyone else, make mistakes. They screw up. There are blooper reels lining the file rooms of every news department in America, and most of them are a riot. But The Daily Show rarely points out those moments which happen by accident. That's because it doesn't have to. These days, even in the product of the most respected media outlets in the country, there are entire swaths of outright absurdity. Intended absurdity. The hard work which journalists aren't simply paid for but are expected to hold to a standard of excellence befitting their incredible responsibility is instead tainted from inception. It's allowed to be a bad joke from the get-go -- the people forced to bring put it all together risking private shame; the people whose faces present it risking public mockery. Jon Stewart's disappointment in us as an industry stings for the simple reason that he's right. He sees our failings because they're impossible not to see at this point. And yet we either don't notice them or, far worse, disregard them because we somehow convince ourselves that they're not failings at all. But make no mistake -- they absolutely are.
Jon Stewart ripped my work and it was damn funny, but also a little sad. When it comes to making fun of the news media, The Daily Show has too much material to work with these days. And that's not the show's fault. It's ours.